‘Lunacy’ in a Legal Record

A ‘supermoon’ is due tonight: https://www.timeanddate.com/moon/phases/

Reading about this has reminded me of the old idea of the moon’s baleful influence upon the mental state of susceptible individuals. Medieval criminal records referring to ‘lunacy’ as an explanation/excuse for violent or otherwise offensive activity are not hard to find, though usually they do little more than stating that the accused is deemed a ‘lunatic’, and it is easy to assume that this is simply a rather general label for those who are obviously disordered (perhaps specifically in a violent sense). Recently, however, I came across a case which went somewhat further into the matter, emphasising the lunar explanation of mental disorder. It is not one I have seen discussed elsewhere, so is, I think, worth a quick note.

The case is in a Suffolk Gaol Delivery Roll,  JUST 3/63/4 m.6, which can be seen on the AALT site at:



Alice Brytyene of Lawshall appeared in a session in Suffolk in September 1309, before William de Ormesby and William Inge, royal justices. She had been arrested because, so it was said, she had: (i) feloniously burnt the home of Simon Brytyene, her husband, in Lawshall, meaning to burn Simon in the house; (ii) broken into the barn of Pymme Brytyene in Lawshall and taken away sheaves of wheat worth 13d; (iii) broken into the oven of Ralph del Peke and taken away seven loaves of bread worth 6d. Alice pleaded not guilty to these charges, and accepted jury trial. The jurors said on oath that she was not guilty of the burglary of the barn or of the oven, nor of taking away the wheat or bread. As for the burning of the house, they said that, for seven years and more, continuously,  Alice had been furia vexab[atur] in incremento lune so that lunatica[m] infirmitate[m]  patit[ur]m i.e. she had been tormented/bothered by madness with the waxing of the moon so that she had suffered from the disease of lunacy. And they said that on the seventh of July last past, Alice had been suffering from this condition [predicte infirmitate vexabatur] when she burnt down the house in question, in her insanity and not feloniously [furiose & non per feloniam] as had been charged against her. Alice was therefore acquitted of the burglaries, and (presumably in respect of the arson, though this is not stated) was to be returned to prison, (presumably in the expectation that she would be pardoned by the king).


It is already well-established that medieval common law and communities did not hold those with obvious and serious mental disorder responsible for their actions as a matter of felony, but it is interesting to see glimpses of the reasoning behind such determinations by lay-people, in the legal context. Here, we have the definite and dramatically or poetically satisfying link between the waxing moon and the growing disorder, and the (sophisticated and observant) comments about Alice having suffered over a long period with a fluctuating condition.  There is food for thought about the place of the ‘insane person’ within the community as well: this community, which was conscious of Alice’s long-term disorder, would appear to have allowed her a degree of freedom, until a recent time. (I am also musing about the effect of a widespread theory of lunar influence – to what extent would people have internalised that idea and to what extent might it have had an effect on their behaviour? One for transcultural psychiatrists/ historians of psychiatry, I think).


I have not turned up a pardon for Alice, but I am reasonably hopeful that she would indeed have been pardoned. This would not necessarily mean a ‘happy ending’, however, since closer confinement by family members might well have been her fate after this episode.